Among the group of music-industry activists behind the event is Mirabeau Room co-owner, Capitol Hill Block Party organizer, and band manager Dave Meinert, who orbits the narrow room with a purposeful air, halting every few steps to chat with clutches of khaki-clad politicians, long-haired lifelong activists, and twenty-something hipsters who've never been to a political fundraiser. In $10, $20, and $100 donations, the money for Licata's reelection effort is pouring in. As one person at the table next to mine put it, "I don't know much about local politics, but I figured it was time to do something." The total take at the door, according to Licata Treasurer Jeanne LeGault: more than $3,000, or an average of $40 from each person who signed the guest list.
The fundraiser, held last Thursday, February 17, was the second the Mirabeau has hosted for a local politician; the first, a happy-hour fundraiser for King County Council Member Dow Constantine last December, raised nearly $6,000. With four of nine city council members and the entire county council up for reelection, the fundraiser won't be the Mirabeau's last.
How did a club owner and music promoter like Meinert get involved in the seriously unsexy world of local politics? The genesis of the fundraisers was last year's presidential election, which spurred many in the local music community to their first political action. For many, from longtime activists like Kerri Harrop, who spun protest records on election night, to music fans who mobilized as part of a nationwide movement to involve the music community in presidential politics, the Mirabeau served as Ground Zero on November 2.
After the election, Meinert and Harrop, along with Mudhoney singer Mark Arm, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and local deejay (and Stranger writer) Kurt B. Reighley, created an informal group aimed at keeping music-community activists who rallied behind Kerry's failed presidential bid involved in politics--this time, on a local level. "We just got people who had been doing stuff with the Kerry election and were motivated to keep going," Meinert says.
Reighley, who deejayed a get out the vote event for Kerry on the waterfront just before the election, calls Meinert an "inspiration." "I saw how I'd gotten energized as a member of the music community and decided I'd like to see other people get involved as well," Reighley says.
"Dave's strength is that he's very good at promoting things, and in this case he's promoting political change," Harrop says. "He's been able to spark an interest in a group of like-minded individuals that probably already held those beliefs but didn't have any place to direct them. And now they do."
These days, it seems like Meinert--a compact, olive-skinned 38-year-old with chaotically combed brown hair and a perennial five o'clock shadow--is everywhere: from the Seattle Times, which plastered him across their front page two weeks ago, to Seattle Magazine, which named him one of the city's 25 most influential people, to city hall, where Meinert has worked behind the scenes to fight radio consolidation and liquor laws that are detrimental to club owners like himself.
Over the last 10 years, Meinert has gone from being a consummate outsider--a representative of an industry that was so outside the city's inner circle that, he says, "there was literally no one to call when we had a problem"--to being an insider, the kind of guy who, as Harrop puts it, "could definitely get lunch with the mayor faster than I could." Back in January, Meinert cohosted a fundraiser for Maria Cantwell that teemed with tech millionaires and music-industry lawyers; the total draw for that event, according to one person who was there, topped $100,000.
Meinert, who cut his political teeth protesting the Reagan administration's military interventions in Central America as a student at Western Washington University in the 1980s, has deep roots as a political activist. In the '90s, he managed an unpredictable band of anarchistic, oil drum-playing performance activist-artists called ¡TchKung!, which Seattle music activist and club owner Kate Becker describes ¡TchKung! as "a great, wild, outrageous band." Becker recalls that ¡TchKung! once stopped traffic after a show at RKCNDY, a defunct all-ages club at the bottom of Denny, by lighting a fire and setting up street barricades outside the venue. The prank, Becker says, got ¡TchKung! permanently eighty-sixed from the club. (The ban, according to Meinert, didn't stick; "they got 'permanently' eighty-sixed a bunch of times," he says. In 1994, Meinert recalls, a riot broke out at a ¡TchKung! show at Bumbershoot.)
Since those days, Meinert's views (and the bands he represents) have become considerably more mainstream. (His radical roots, however, still show through--the other night, at the Licata fundraiser, he began a sentence, "When I first got involved with the Communist Party…"). His first political victory came during the fight to defeat the Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO)--a draconian law that hindered Seattle's music scene at the height of its national prominence. The TDO battle, not coincidentally, also marked the local music community's political coming of age.
In 1993, Meinert was booking shows for the Odd Fellows Hall on Capitol Hill. One night, the police shut down a Mudhoney show at the venue, claiming that kids at the show were dancing--a violation of the arcane ordinance. (The TDO's convoluted strictures included a rule that said underage club goers couldn't dance at live all-ages shows, though the definition of "dancing" was up to individual officers.) "We said, 'No they're not--they're moshing.' And they said, 'It looks like dancing to us,'" Meinert recalls. "They were applying the TDO to everything, including concerts, which is when a lot of punk kids and the music community in general started fighting it."
Over the next nine years, music-industry advocates like Meinert, along with club-going kids, concerned lawyers, and sympathetic city council members, worked to kill the TDO. Thanks to the work of a group called the Music and Youth Task Force--created largely at the behest of Meinert and fellow all-ages advocates like Becker--the TDO was overturned and replaced by the far less-restrictive All Ages Dance Ordinance (AADO) in 2002.
Those who worked with him to get rid of the TDO give Meinert credit for his determination, tenacity, and willingness to, as Becker puts it, sit through "a lot of really tedious and grueling" meetings. Newell Aldrich, an aide to Nick Licata who served with Meinert on the task force, recalls that Meinert was one of the few people "who volunteered on actually writing the [new] ordinance, which was a huge pain the ass."
At the first few meetings, several people who worked on the task force say, Meinert was anything but cooperative. Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel, who served on the task force as an SPD representative, recalls that "there were times when Dave would just go way overboard and just start screaming. It was inappropriate." James Keblas, head of the all-ages advocacy group the Vera Project, says Meinert "would say, 'You're fucking lying' right to [police officers'] faces. He wouldn't let up." Over time, though, Meinert learned to work alongside his adversaries. "By the time the task force ended, he was one of the most productive members," Aldrich says.
Another key turning point came in 2001, when music advocate Greg Nickels ran for mayor against then city attorney (and music-industry foe) Mark Sidran. (Former Mayor Paul Schell, who lost in the primary, had vetoed the AADO in 2000.) Activists like Meinert and Novoselic, who founded a music advocacy group called JAMPAC, seized the opportunity, dumping thousands of dollars into an anti-Sidran ad campaign. The effort paid off: Nickels got elected by a narrow margin and the music community won itself a powerful ally. "Mayor Nickels was the first mayor to consider the music community to be a credible business community and treat us as such," Meinert says. And the city council, which had been ambivalent about the music community, started to come around.
City Council Member Jan Drago, who had been a frequent ally of music industry opponent Margaret Pageler, says her own turning point on the TDO came after a series of meetings with Meinert, who convinced her that "the music industry was a huge economic development force." Drago says she has "a great deal of respect for [Meinert.] He's very politically savvy, and he really educated me." Eventually, Drago became part of the six-member bloc who voted to ditch the TDO in favor of the far less restrictive All Ages Dance Ordinance in 2002.
The AADO victory, along with Nickels' election, opened doors that had long been closed to music advocates. Richard Conlin, the most outspoken TDO opponent on the council, recalls that when he was first elected, "there was virtually no access at all" for the music community. Before the TDO battle, according to Vera board member and task force member Stephanie Pure, the music industry "was seen as a villain. David made the case that they were an economic voice to be reckoned with. He's done a great job in elevating the music community to one that's not easy to vilify or push aside."
Since the AADO victory, Meinert has pushed the music community's agenda at every level of government--from local policy changes to federal regulations. In 2002, Meinert, along with Deborah Semer, then director of the Northwest chapter of the Recording Academy, lobbied the mayor and city council to create a city music office to promote the music industry. With the city in the middle of a years-long budget crunch, Council Member Drago recommended that the activists scale back their proposal, and push instead to expand the city's film office into an Office of Film and Music. "A lot of people ask for advice and then don't take it," Drago says. "To their credit, they did take it and pushed it through." In addition to the Film and Music Office, the city created a new music advisory commission, on which Meinert serves, to give the office its marching orders. The commission's first recommendation was the completion of a study started by JAMPAC (which went bankrupt in 2002) on the economic impact of the music industry in Seattle.
That study, which found that the music industry brings $650 million into the city's economy every year, "has had a huge effect," according to Film and Music Office Director Donna James. "It verified and gave validity to everything everyone in the music community had been saying, but no one had ever really listened to. It said this is a huge business people need to pay attention to."
As head of the local Recording Academy, Meinert has pushed to turn the historically apolitical group (whose main function is putting on the Grammys) into a potent lobbying force. According to Semer, Meinert "saw the Grammies as a mechanism to do the work he wanted to do." One year ago, the group put together a forum titled "Fixing Radio," at which industry professionals came up with national policy recommendations relating to media consolidation, "decency" regulations, and programming diversity. Last year, Meinert personally lobbied Mayor Nickels and the city council when radio giant Clear Channel, which owns five Seattle radio stations, seemed poised to open a large club in Seattle, a move that would give the San Antonio-based company a toehold in the city's lucrative music-venue market. So far, Clear Channel's plans have gone nowhere.
More recently, Meinert fought--and helped quash--a proposal that would have altered state liquor law to effectively ban all-ages shows. After some badgering by Meinert, City Attorney Tom Carr agreed to go to an all-ages show at the Showbox. He says the experience "really opened my eyes to how you can control the crowd and make it difficult to pass drinks to minors." Carr adds, "I learned a lot, and we have not done anything to impair the Showbox."
James, who worked across the table from Meinert on the proposed liquor-law changes, says Meinert's tenacity can be grating, but readily acknowledges that doggedness has its place. "Sometimes I just wanted to let the process work and he can't do that. He's got to jump-start it." At times, James says, Meinert "can drive you crazy. But it's people like that who actually end up getting things done."